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These Are the Unintended Consequences of Purity Culture

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Who gets hurt when Christians over-emphasize sexual purity and neglect grace?


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The Bible has an incredibly high regard for sex. Song of Solomon is dedicated to celebrating the union of two lovers as it symbolically pertains to the bride of Christ with Christ as the bridegroom. Throughout scripture we frequently read that we should avoid sexual immorality, impurity, adultery and lust. However, different Christians define sexual immorality differently.

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Should you wait until marriage to engage in any physical contact, even waiting for your wedding day to kiss your partner? What does the Bible have to say about consent? Why is there polygamy in the Bible? Who’s responsible for inciting lust? Is the ideal person to teach a child about sex their youth pastor? Is dating bad? When the church gets hyper-focused on trying to instill purity values within its community, what happens to those who feel ostracized by the teachings?

These questions are complex and in recent years, there’s been growing concern that mainstream Christian teachings on sexual purity may be causing harm. Here are some influential leaders spotlighting problems within purity culture.

Retiring I Kissed Dating Goodbye

In 1997 when a then 21-year old Joshua Harris released the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, shockwaves ran though Christian youth communities. People hotly debated if dating was something that Christians should avoid. Harris advocated for young people to find their spouses through a courtship that was overseen by Godly parents. (Although, this assumes that all young Christians had Godly parents available to oversee a courtship process.) He personally had great success finding a Godly wife through his method and assured his 1.2 million readers that his romantic prescription would also deliver similar success for them.

20 years later, Harris changed his thinking, even ceasing the book’s publication. In a public statement, he explained, “I no longer agree with its central idea that dating should be avoided. I now think dating can be a healthy part of a person developing relationally and learning the qualities that matter most in a partner… in an effort to set a high standard, the book emphasized practices (not dating, not kissing before marriage) and some concepts that are not in the Bible. In trying to warn people of the potential pitfalls of dating, it instilled fear for some—fear of making mistakes or having their heart broken. The book also gave some the impression that a certain methodology of relationships would deliver a happily-ever-after ending—a great marriage, a great sex life—even though this is not promised by scripture.

Additionally, Harris released a documentary called I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye in an attempt to bring healing to those who were hurt by his message. The film is available for free online.

Supporting Victims of Sexual Assault

Another problem with purity culture and the True Love Waits movement was its use of fear tactics. The movement claimed that if a person had sex outside of marriage, they would be gravely damaged and the consequences would last a lifetime.

This line of thinking is especially dangerous for those who experienced sexual assault. Elizabeth Smart grew up Mormon, a faith that has an extremely similar purity culture to Evangelical communities. In 2002, when she was 14, her high-profile kidnapping rocked the nation. Miraculously, she survived and was returned home to her family nine months later. However, during her time with her captors, she endured near-daily rape. Her faith community’s hyper-emphasis on chastity until marriage proved to be very psychologically traumatizing for Smart.

The book also gave some the impression that a certain methodology of relationships would deliver a happily-ever-after ending—a great marriage, a great sex life—even though this is not promised by scripture.

In her abstinence-only religious classes, Smart recalls her teacher comparing someone who had sex outside of marriage as a chewed up piece of gum. She explain that following her assault, “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’ And that’s how easily it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value.” Smart believes that this hurtful message prevented her from trying to escape her abuser sooner. Because she was no longer a virgin, she felt that her community would deem her unloveable and damaged.

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Thankfully, few people endure experiences as abusive as Smart’s kidnapping, but regardless if someone is the victim of assault or made a conscious decision to have sex outside of marriage, it’s unhealthy to send a message that their value today only lies in their previous sexual experiences. For those made to feel “impure,” they may be hesitant to leave an unhealthy relationship for fear that no one else will ever love them.

Freedom from Shame

In more liberal Christian communities, there’s increasing dialogue about reframing an understanding of healthy sexual boundaries completely. Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran minister and author Shameless which debuted in early 2019. Her book reached the New York Times Bestseller list and focuses heavily on reducing feelings of shame that Christians may have been taught in relation to their sexuality. Bolz-Weber’s theology prioritizes the Bible’s message of grace over prescriptive lifestyle teachings. Some readers find her message of sexual acceptance incredibly healing. Others find that it strays too far from traditional Evangelical values. Regardless of your feelings about Bolz-Weber’s position, she’s proven to resonate with large swaths of Christians who felt damaged by the black-and-white messaging of the 1990’s True Love Waits movement.

 

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Happy book birthday to my dear friend @sarcasticlutheran. “Shameless” is a bold, much-needed book. It’s not always easy reading; Some moments made me uncomfortable. But maybe I need to be a little uncomfortable. Maybe we shouldn’t sit so easily with the shame that has become our habit or the fear some of us have regarding our bodies or the complexes some of us retain from theologies past. . “And in the same way Jesus was unashamed of his wounded body, he was also unafraid of the human bodies he encountered in his ministry. We’ve seen how he reached out his hand to touch the bodies of lepers, the blind, the possessed—those who were wounded physically, spiritually, and socially. And he knew that in his resurrection he would be known by his brokenness and scars. Isn’t that true for us as well? We can only really know and be known when we show how life has marked us.” . Nadia, you are brave and you are beloved. You are such a beautiful writer, and you bless and challenge the world with your words. I am so grateful for you! #ShamelessBook

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While there remains ample debate among Christians about what God’s sexual purity standards should look like in practice, there seems to be a decreasing emphasis on prescriptive rules for finding a partner. As the unintended damage of “purity culture” continues to emerge, we anticipate more Christian thought-leaders will prioritize healthy messages and conversations of wisdom and grace over pharisaical chastity in the future.